Common Myths: U.S. banking executives education

We surveyed the undergraduate backgrounds of 184 top US executives at the largest US banking and insurance companies, to verify several commonly held beliefs about where they earned the bachelor’s degree and what they majored in. These executives “sit” atop massive organizations that collectively employ 1.5 million people, and control US$ 12 trillion in assets.

Organizations covered in this initial survey include among others, JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, State Street, BNY Mellon, Met Life, and PNC Corporation. Data was collected on individuals identified as top management, by these corporations in their websites. Only individuals who had received their undergraduate education in the US were included.

Myth #1 – They were all IVY League undergraduates

No they were not! In fact we were surprised when we discovered that the 184 executives had attended 114 different institutions of all types and sizes for their undergraduate degree. “Merely” 15% had attended IVY League institutions; granted this was many times greater than one might have predicted on the basis of total college enrollment, it was arguably less than one might have expected if one accepts the premise that IVY League institutions enroll only the crème de la crème.

Myth #2 – They all majored in business, finance or accounting

No they did not! We were only able to identify undergraduate majors for a subset of the sample, and this sub-group had declared 128 majors (counting double majors as 2 majors). Of the 128 majors, “only” 42% were in business or business-related areas. On the other hand, 41% of majors were in liberal arts and social sciences; of these, 2 in 3 majored in Economics.

Myth #3 – They all attended “big branded colleges

No they did not! 23% of our sample had attended small liberal arts colleges; an impressive proportion if we extrapolate from current college enrollment numbers (liberal arts colleges account for a mere 3.5% of students enrolled in 4 year institutions). In fact, 1 in 3 of the executives in our sample had attended institutions with undergraduate enrollments under 5,000 students. Perhaps size matters after all!

Back to the beginning

One big surprise – vast majority of executives had attended private institutions as opposed to state schools.

It was stunning to learn that 68% of the executives in our sample had attended private as opposed to public institutions of higher learning. Although it is axiomatic that correlation does not imply causation, the result possibly raises interesting questions.

Why did we conduct this survey in the first place? It was in response to the question “will my son be able to get a job?” when we presented a “target list” that seemed short on “branded” institutions. A question of this nature is difficult to respond to, because “yes of course” seems an inadequate answer even if it is the correct one. Did the person actually believe that the massive US economy only creates opportunities for graduates of IVY or so called “IVY – Plus” colleges in the country? Nor is it sufficient to present statistics showing that the vast majority of graduates successfully find employment after graduation, because there are all kinds of jobs and perhaps these graduates are doomed to low paying service jobs.

On a regular basis we encounter parents who are concerned that a background in the liberal arts will doom their child. Our data suggests that this is not necessarily the case.

In any event we believe that we can now tell parents that where their child ends up in life, will probably not be due to whether he or she attends an IVY or IVY Plus institution. It will likely depend more on their child’s personal qualities. A college environment that is conducive to the ongoing development of their child is probably more crucial than the identity of that college.


Finally, it would be amiss of us not to discuss survey limitations. To begin with, different organizations define their “executive team” differently, and indeed some organizations identify larger executive teams than others. Furthermore the data set also includes individuals in different functional areas so it does not reveal anything about individual functional areas – e.g. foreign exchange traders versus human resources chiefs. So yes, we are metaphorically comparing “fruit baskets”, and the fruits in the baskets may not all be the same. Our dataset is subject to change as we are constantly refining our work.